“The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” If this passage from Psalms is correct, then many people today - including numerous scientists and other well-educated folks - are fools, for they insist that God does not exist. While name-calling is never productive, is there a way in which one might conclude that such a person is indeed a "fool," and not merely someone with whom we disagree?
Well, let’s begin with a look at the
definition of “fool,” which includes “a person who has been tricked or
deceived into appearing or acting silly or stupid.” Now, sometimes we
trick ourselves, and thereby make fools of ourselves. And other times we
are misled. But either way, most would agree that someone who holds
contradictory views has deceived himself. Imagine a person proudly
proclaiming that the prime rib he is about to eat is an important part
of his vegetarian diet. Or the person who says that the only medicine
that can save him is the one with no ingredients.
contradictions aren't as obvious. Why, then, is it a contradiction to
insist there is no God? It doesn't appear to be contradictory - at first
glance anyway. For the answer to that question, we are indebted to St. Anselm of
Canterbury, who lived and pondered these questions some ten centuries
ago. I can’t do justice to Anselm’s argument in this brief piece, but
perhaps some concepts borrowed from Anselm may help make the point.
first requires consideration of just what the mind does. Anyone who has
seen a baby develop realizes that the human mind comes pre-programmed
with an “operating system” of sorts. This allows us to acquire language,
to reason, to recognize concepts such as fairness and truth and beauty,
and other intangible things, and to make use of imagination. This
ability for abstract thought lends itself to “got it” moments, when a
problem that has been puzzling us all of a sudden makes sense. We all
use these systems naturally and intuitively; of course there is no other way, since we
could never use reason, for instance, to prove the validity or
usefulness of reason.
One aspect of this ability for abstract
thought is the ability to conceptualize. Food, for instance, can
encompass a million different things, but to qualify it must be edible
and serve to nourish, and not poison, us. We can call an ash tray food,
but the underlying thing is not a matter of what we call it, but of what
So, with this observation in view, consider for a moment not what a definition of God might be, but what the conception
of God is. What is it that we are struggling to grasp when we use that
term? Anselm’s definition was simply this – God is that being a greater
than which cannot be conceived. Whatever attributes God would have –
omnipotence, omnipresence, perfect goodness, etc. – if you can conceive
of a being with all those attributes plus an additional one, then the
latter would be God. So, imagine two beings then – each with exhaustive,
infinite powers. One of the two has the attribute of necessary
existence, while the other may or may not exist. Clearly, the former –
the one with necessary existence – would be the greater. Consequently,
to fully conceive of God, we must be conceiving of a Being who can’t not
exist, whose existence must always have been and will always continue
to be. Anything else simply cannot fit the conception of God.
what does that prove? Maybe this conception of God is imaginary. Not
so, Anselm would contend. And here’s why: the mind is not capable of
conceptualizing something that does not in fact exist, that does not
relate to something real. Now, this premise is a bit harder to get one’s
mind around. The normal response to this part of the argument is that
we create imaginary things all the time, from unicorns to tooth fairies
to Jedi Knights. But each of these things, while imaginary, is the
combining of things that are real: a horse and a horn; a person with
wings and unusual powers; a warrior with special abilities and unusual
weapons. And, moreover, neither a unicorn nor a tooth fairy nor a Jedi
Knight would possess the attribute of necessary existence. If a unicorn did exist, it would have to consist of a horse with a single horn in its head; but its existence
could have occurred briefly in the distant past, or could arise in the
distant future or could not occur at all. We can fully conceptualize
such a creature without the need that the creature itself actually
exist, because the conceptualization does not require necessary
existence. For God, by contrast, the only way to conceptualize Him is as
a necessarily existent being. If you are not seeing Him that way, says
Anselm, you are not yet thinking about God, but about something lesser.
foray into philosophy can be difficult. Fortunately, there are many
other proofs for God’s existence, ones much easier with which to
grapple, but this one stands out for its elegance. For if it has merit,
then God has embedded within us the means to find Him in the one place
we have exclusive and special access to: our very minds.
Anselm is right, then the fool who denies God is saying something like
“I believe that the Being who must necessarily exist does not exist.” A
rather foolish thing to say, when you see it clearly.
says that God has written his law on our heart. Perhaps if we probe a
bit deeper still, we can also begin to see in its depths the first faint
scratching of His signature.